My internet has no comments

There are two precise reasons why I'm writing this post. The first one is an article I stumbled upon on Kotaku a few days ago. The other is this message I posted in a slack channel that simply said:

my internet has no comments

I wasn't lying. My internet doesn't have—for the most part—comments. I turned them almost all off years ago.

Before my friend Matt starts yelling at me, I'm aware I'm using the word internet when I should say the www. But most people don't know the difference, so I'll just stick to the internet because I like it better.

My internet is almost entirely free from popups and ads, but that's not the point of this article. My browsing experience is nearly exclusively content-focused, and all my internet interactions happen either via email or on private slack channels. And that's the reason why even though I am aware of the toxicity of the overall internet discourse I can't say I really comprehend it.

I removed myself from public online discourse years ago and only posted maybe a handful of comments, almost exclusively on work-related topics. I just don't think there's much value in adding my voice inside comments sections.

Sometimes though, when a topic is polarising enough, I do like to peruse comments sections on specific sites, just to see what's the current status of online discussions. I am doing this while being fully aware that comments sections are not a good representation of the global population, and based on the site, the audience can be strongly skewed towards a specific demographic. Still, it's fun to peek into the madness sometimes.

And that is what happened the other day on the Kotaku article. The content of the post is not really that relevant to what I'm interested in discussing here. Only things you need to know are that:

  1. The subject was a very popular videogame
  2. It was highly political
  3. Racism was involved

Those are the perfect ingredients for a very chaotic comment section which is why I was interested to see where the discussion was going. To no one's surprise, it was a mess. But an intriguing one.

Designed Chaos

If you ever had the pleasure to design a comments section, you know those things are just pure chaos. Every site in the past 20 years (at least) have tried to solve the issue of designing a comment section that doesn't suck, and we're still here trying to solve the same problem.

I think there's just no way to organise a conversation that is frequently branching and regularly welcoming new voices. That is a UI/UX problem that is impacting how we interact with each other.

There's no need for me to show you an example of what I'm talking about. Just open pretty much any comment section ever. Everything is either a tangled mess of nesting—in an attempt to give the discussion a structure—or an @ mention galore where everyone is replying to someone else, and it's all bundled together.

And I get it: comments sections are hard. That's because human conversations are messy. But the messiness of the whole experience is shaping the way we interact with each other. If you feel compelled to add your voice to a discussion, what are the chances that you're going to carefully read all the previous replies to see what people before you have written? I'd place to over/under at 1%, and I'd personally bet on the under.

And, again, I get it. Trying to follow a discussion is more often than not impossible. Everyone is talking on top of each other, often at the same time. You read a comment, start typing your reply and, by the time you're done, ten other people have posted something new and the person you're replying to has posted three other comments to three other users and the discussion has moved to a different place.

So next time instead of typing a long and sensible reply you post something as fast as you can because if you don't do that your "contribution" is lost. Soundbite discussions here we come.

What are you saying? You don't do that and prefer to stick with your elaborate response. Well, I respect you. Really. But we both know the first reply is going to be Do you expect anyone to read that wall of text LOL. That's just how the internet goes these days.

This is all fascinating to me. It's incredible how we've adapted to the medium. And it's amazing how this appears to be the only way people interact online these days. And I say "it appears to be" because I know this is probably not true. I am sure I'm not the only one who has decided to remove himself from public discussions and moved to more private places on the web.

Audience-less discussions

Pretty much 99% of my online interactions are audience-less. When I'm interacting with someone online, there's usually just the two of us. As far as I'm concern, there's also no anonymity. I'm not some faceless and nameless user in a comment section. If you write an email to me, you know you're writing to a human being. A human being that you had the chance to know—at least a little bit—through this site.

And that is also another big difference between the type of interactions I have from the ones you usually enjoy on the web. My interactions with people are typically initiated by something I wrote. People write to me in response to something I posted on my site. And that's my site. I have control over it. You know it's not the product of some fluky algorithm that showed you a random tweet or suggested you a random post. If you're reading this, at some point you willingly clicked on a link to this site. And you're almost a thousand words in so there's no way you just stumbled on this content.

The difference between clicking on a link to open a site, read through a thousand words, click on a link to open your email app and write an email versus mindlessly scrolling through Twitter and hit reply on a tweet is massive. And if you don't see the difference between the two interactions, then I don't know what to tell you.

And that's why I think more people should abandon both social media and comments sections and go back to personal sites and emails.

The web as a social media platform

The other day I read a short post—that now I can't find and therefore can't link—that was suggesting this idea of looking at the web as a social media platform. The more I thought about it, the more I liked this analogy. The web solves almost all the problems social media platforms are currently dealing with.

The web is decentralised by nature. No single authority has control over it. You're not the product when you run your own site. You're the only person responsible for what happens on your own site which means you can't hide behind a 3rd party platform. It's incredibly customisable and flexible. The barrier of entry is very low. I can go on and on with these, but you get the idea.

I genuinely believe more people should go back to personal sites. Or newsletters. That's another big one that is gaining more and more momentum. We should just accept the fact that, for the most part, social media platforms have failed at encouraging good discussions. They successfully managed to gather people in one space but failed miserably at providing the tools to have useful conversations. And we should also accept the fact that we just can't have one to one discussions with five hundred other human being at once. That's just not a possibility. I mean, go out and try it. Or, well it's 2020 so maybe mark it on your calendar and try it next year. Invite ten friends out for dinner and try to have a conversation about any serious topic with all ten at the same time. It's just not going to happen. I can guarantee you that in 15 minutes people will be talking on top of each other. That's just human nature. And yet, for some reason, we expect this to work online. It's just bizarre.

I'm rambling now

I'm going to stop here before this post descends into complete chaos. The TLDR is more people should delete their social media and should embrace more personal mediums. Start a personal site or a newsletter. Then go read what other people have to say on topics that interest you. And if you find something interesting online 1) share it on your own site and newsletter and 2) connect with the author. And for today that's all I have to say.

As always, if you have thoughts on the subject feel free to get in touch via email. I'm also still running my experimental Slack. If you want to get invited and hang out there let me know.